Saturday, April 26, 2008


Yesterday I was at the barn for two hours in the morning doing chores and then back out there from noon until 7 p.m. for lessons. Keil Bay had the day off due to his eye, so Apache Moon and Cody were in the line-up for the afternoon.

The wonderful thing about these lessons is that Marlis conducts them like a clinic so that we get information even when we're on the sidelines watching. We're working on softness in the bridle and helping the horses to find their own places of comfort with the bit.

Apache was experiencing some "pony" issues, but as usual, my daughter and Marlis worked through that quietly and competently. Every time I see this process, it has a bigger impact on me. Marlis advocates "letting the horse have the argument with himself" and this approach really works but it also feels very humane. There is never anything harsh or loud.

The lesson ended with Apache Moon doing 5 strides of incredibly soft, collected movement that had everyone present marveling.

Next up was Cody. Marlis had asked if it would be okay for her to get on and feel him move so she could better help us teach him to use his body well. We were excited at the prospect of seeing Marlis in the saddle - she doesn't do much riding of students' horses because she feels it's important to use the lesson time to get the student and horse connected and communicating. But with Cody we felt it would be useful for her to get the feel in the saddle.

My daughter and I have been trying hard to keep Cody in regular work this spring. We've come up with a riding schedule that allows Cody to be ridden every day (with a day or two off each week) by one of us. I work on bending and suppling and she does the endurance/stamina/overall strengthening work of lots of trot/canter. It's paying off.

Marlis noticed immediately that he was moving better, and she focused her time in the saddle on creating softness in the bridle and helping him feel comfortable. All this work was done at the walk. She talked through everything she was doing and why, so that when I got on I could pick right up with it. (she also did some work with Cody on stepping away from the mounting block - he was afraid of it when we first got him, and now is okay with it but will often take a step away when you mount. Marlis fixed that in about 5 minutes, with no words, no fuss, and it held when I mounted)

The instant I got on and gave him the cue to walk, his back rose up under me and the softness in the bridle rippled back through every muscle in his body. It was amazing. We walked until he and I got our signals clear with one another, and then did a little sitting trot work to maintain the softness at the faster gait. The main effect I felt was that his trot was incredibly soft and springy as his back came up to me with each stride. It was exactly like when you bounce a basketball and the ball comes up into your hand on the up bounce, that moment before you push it down again.

I noticed that the stirrups were hanging on my feet, and one slipped off, because I didn't need them. They weren't a part of riding that trot at all. It was really nice. The other thing was the synergistic thing that happens when one part of the horse-rider team gets soft. The other one follows. As Cody started out soft and stayed that way, my body got more and more relaxed and in rhythm with his body. As that happened, my position got better and better. By starting with softness, we "fixed" a number of things without fuss or bother or drilling position.

This is part of the magic in Marlis' work. She comes at things from a very organic place that flies in the face of the way I've ridden in lessons before. And the effect is that while there are moments when you feel you're taking baby steps, back in kindergarten, suddenly you make these huge leaps forward and realize what you're doing is quite advanced. In fact, so advanced you might never have done it before.

After my ride, Cody got a break and then did another lesson with our friend Sue, who had similar experiences of her own. She shared a technique for opening the pelvis while in the saddle that I'm eager to try. And I think it's safe to say we're all eager for our next round in two weeks' time!

Last night my husband discovered that three of our baby barn swallows had fallen out of the nest. All were safe and he returned them, and added a small "baby gate" so that they won't be able to tumble out. All is well this morning on that front.


Grey Horse Matters said...

In my mind there is nothing better than the feeling of connection and softness while riding a horse. It is definitely something to work toward and try to get that feeling consistently,but it's not as easy as it sounds. I wish there was a magic formula and maybe there is, but I haven't found it yet. I am keeping my hopes up that I will. Marlis sounds like a wonderful coach. I would love to know how she got Cody to behave at the mounting block. Dusty seems to do the same thing, once your foot is in the stirrup, off she goes and no matter what I have tried, short of having someone hold her and give her treats while I mount, she will not stand still.
It's good to hear the little birds are doing well.

billie said...

Cody's issue at the mounting block is that he very calmly takes one step away with his hindquarters when you step up to the top step. I've been dealing with it by mounting in the corner of the arena where he doesn't have room to step away. Marlis took the mounting block into the middle and proceeded to fix it in a few simple steps.

I'll see if she has time to come visit us here and explain. I've seen her deal with this issue in clinics and it seems so simple when she does it.

Part of my problem is I have my own issue with the mounting block - I need it to be in the exact right position so that when I step into the stirrup my other leg is very secure until I choose to swing it up and over. I don't know what happened to that little "bounce" I used to have when younger that enabled mounting from the ground - but it seems to have disappeared!

Grey Horse Matters said...

I have the exact same issue at the mounting block. All the planets have to be in alignment before I will get on, this drives my daughter crazy. I usually get a comment like , just get on the horse isn't going to stand here all day and wait for you to be just right. Well if my horse Erik could be trained to stand still for me, I feel so can every other horse. Apparently I am wrong in this thinking, and will have to get a lot fitter and more agile like I used to be.

billie said...

I don't think you're wrong to expect any horse to be capable of learning to stand still during mounting!

Keil Bay knows my fussiness and like Erik, he will stand there forever and wait for me to get myself organized.

Do not even ASK me if I can mount from the right! It's like trying to do something upside down and backward.

There was a hilarious newspaper columnist for a local paper a few years back who wrote about her trials and tribulations learning dressage as an older woman. She had a HUGE horse who was quite spooky, and one of her columns had to do with hacking him over to another farm one weekend morning for a lesson. She had wrapped his legs in preparation for the lesson, but was afraid the whole way over that he would spook, one or more of the bandages would get loose, and she would have to get off to fix them. The big dilemma was that if she got off she'd never be able to get back on!

Victoria Cummings said...

You're both making me feel better. I always worry out on the trail that I won't be able to get back on. Silk is very patient with me, and I do think that it's easier on the horse if you mount with a block - how's that for a rationalization? Billie, you are so lucky to have Marlis as a teacher - I really enjoy learning vicariously from what she tells you.

billie said...

We're fortunate to have found Marlis AND that she's willing to travel to us so regularly with her busy clinic schedule.

I've never yet mounted Keil Bay without the mounting block! I can get on Cody or Salina w/o it but rarely do.

I often do this funky thing while brushing my teeth - I hike one foot up onto the bathroom counter and hold it there for two of the four Sonicare cycles, then switch to the other foot for the last two. All in an effort to practice that foot in the stirrup position and stretch those muscles out.

It's helped with the stretching part but I still can't get that "bounce" back.

Enchanted Forrest said...

As usual, you captured the day perfectly. Marlis is such a wonderful teacher and Cody a great horse. What a privledge it is to be able to learn from the two of them (and from you and Kate as well). Even just sitting and watching, I absorb so much. If I had more time, I'd become a Marlis "groupie". :-)

billie said...

Thank you, Sue. I try to capture the highlights but as you know, there is SO much that happens when she's here and especially when you're here as well - between all the lessons, it's truly like a clinic.